Sean Tucker’s All-American journey, from unranked to unforgettable

Sean Tucker's journey from unranked high school recruit to All-American

Syracuse initially offered the second-year RB when he was an unranked high school prospect.
Published: December 19, 2021
Syracuse Football vs Boston College
Sean Tucker, pictured here against Boston College, became the first Orange RB to rush for more than 1,400 yards in a season.

The other high school football players left after practice ended. But some nights, one kid stayed behind, inching closer to his and his father’s annual goal of getting bigger, faster and stronger.

“We’d take advantage of going into the gym as long as the door was open or we could find someone with the key,” Steve Tucker said. “There were a lot of times where we closed the gym. Locked the door, turned the lights out and left.”

The greatest single season for a running back in Syracuse football history started among youth football fields and high school tracks in Owings Mill, Maryland, and after practice, in the Calvert Hall College High School weight room.

Sean Tucker, now a sophomore at Syracuse University, was that kid. A kid, now, with a résumé full of accolades that haven’t been earned by a Syracuse player in years.

After his second year with SU, Tucker earned First Team All-American recognition from the Football Writers Association of America and from ESPN, joining Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little as the only Orange running backs to earn the distinction. Tucker added Second-Team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation and the Associated Press. He became the first Syracuse running back to earn All-American honors from any organization since Little in 1966.

The 1,496 rushing yards in Tucker’s First-Team All-ACC season surpassed the 1,372-yard single-season Syracuse record Joe Morris set in 1979. Tucker credits all of this season’s success to training with his father and building a work ethic that kept him dedicated to his goals.

Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III and Iowa State’s Breece Hall, 2021’s Consensus All-American running backs, declared for the NFL Draft earlier this week. Tucker will have buzz as one of the best running backs in the country before next year’s college football season begins.

But Tucker didn’t have a star or recruiting rating next to his name when Dino Babers and the Orange offered him a scholarship. Syracuse’s latest All-American running back started high school football as a cornerback.

Frank Palomo, then Calvert Hall’s Director of Football Operations, scouted Tucker when he was in eighth grade playing a variety of defensive secondary positions for a select middle school football team. When Palomo recruited Tucker to play for Calvert Hall, he envisioned his future as a defensive back, impressed now by the physicality of his game.

“When he was playing defense and closing on receivers and closing on running backs it was like, ‘wait a minute, we might have something here,'” Palomo said. “If he wasn’t a running back, if that didn’t work out, he’d be a really good DB somewhere.”

But it did work out when Donald Davis, Calvert Hall’s head coach at the time, brought Sean up to the varsity level as a sophomore and converted him to the offensive backfield. Tucker rushed for 1,556 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games as a junior, and 14 scores with 1,204 yards in his senior year, according to Syracuse Athletics.

“He would just rip off 80-yard runs on the casual, so I kind of figured it out there,” said Cole Herbert, a former teammate at Calvert Hall. “He ripped off like an 85-yard touchdown. I was playing quarterback at the time, I was running behind him like, ‘holy s—.'”

Davis said it was rare for a running back who carried the ball 25 times a game to finish first in every sprint during conditioning. Tucker routinely ran sprints around the track, shuttled cones, or scaled the high school bleachers in addition to lifting weights with his dad outside of practice. Tucker, who also ran track at Calvert Hall and won the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association’s indoor 55-meter dash in consecutive years, often left one practice for the other. Palomo said he was always on the move. Always checking off the goals he and his father set in secret.

“He sets goals, and he goes and gets them,” Palomo said. “I know it sounds simple or like something out of a self-help book, like if you read Tony Robbins or something like that, but he literally does it. He sets a goal and does it.”

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Syracuse fans rallied around Tucker's "pleased" catchphrase, as the RB ran for more than 100 yards in nine games.

And while Tucker wasn’t concerned with star ratings and recruiting rankings, his father was. Steve said the traditional star-rating high school recruiting process favors players who attend certain camps and prospect showcases. The players who don’t attend those camps or play in front of a site’s talent evaluator are less likely to earn high star ratings, even if they are more skilled than those who do.

Tucker graduated from Calvert Hall ranked as the No. 27 player in Maryland and the state’s third-highest ranked running back in the 2020 class, according to the 247 Sports Composite Rankings. Nationally, he ranked 867th overall and No. 58 among all running backs.

“He definitely didn’t have, like, a big name or anything, but that kind of fueled him, I guess,” said Herbert, who held a football offer to Rutgers and now plays lacrosse at the University of North Carolina. “You don’t know who he is, but he’ll come and pop you in the mouth. That’s kind of all he did, was just keep his head down and work.”

Tucker was unrated by any major site in Sept. 2018 when Syracuse offered him his first FBS scholarship. Steve said other schools showed interest in his son, though Babers and the Orange offered first. Tucker later picked up offers from Rutgers, Wisconsin, Air Force and Kent State.

“The first one was important. And that was a really good experience,” Steve said about Syracuse. “No matter how good you think he is or how good other people think he is, it doesn’t really sink in until you actually get some offers.”

The two 2020 Maryland high school running backs who ranked above Tucker have combined for 1,244 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns over two seasons in their respective power five conferences. Tucker has compiled 2,122 yards on the ground and 16 rushing scores with the Orange.

“He fell through the cracks, basically,” Steve said about his son. “And ultimately when he did get rated, he was underrated. I don’t think anybody would question me now.”

Maybe the biggest question left: what if Davis didn’t move Tucker to tailback?

Davis spoke proudly of “the best running back” he ever coached on a cell phone call while coaching a middle school football practice. He barked pre-snap adjustments before he sent his players to the sideline for a water break.

“My middle school guys, do you know what numbers they’re wearing?” Davis said. “One’s wearing 24, the others wearing 34. One’s Sean Tucker’s high school number; the other is his college number.”

“How about that?”

Syracuse Football vs Boston College
Tucker, pictured here against Boston College, rushed for a career-high 207 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles.